Importing seeds of food crops : it’s against the law (Willem Van Cotthem)

In 2007, I have launched the action “Seeds for Food” (  . This initiative, aiming at offering free seeds of food crops to hungry people in developing countries is a fantastic success, seeds of tropical and subtropical food crops being sent almost every day to my personal address.

I select those seeds per species, give them the necessary treatment and offer them for free to development projects almost all over the world.

So, what’s wrong with this ?

The problem is that in many countries import of seeds is prohibited.  Recently, I received a message indicating that I even could get in trouble with this action.

Well, you will find my reaction on that message below.  Maybe, you want to comment on this ?  You can do so by sending an email to


Dear Friend,

You are completely right, it is forbidden to import :

“Plants, parts thereof, and plant produce including trees and shrubs, potatoes and certain other vegetables, fruit, bulbs, and seeds – unless permitted to do so”

This became a rule in many countries after they got invaded by some imported “wild, invasive species without any predator”, e.g. some noxious weeds or some animals (like the rabbits in Australia).

But I can easily show that this rule (law) is nonsense in some aspects for seeds of food crops !

If one is not allowed to import seeds (because of the danger that with these seeds some parasites or wild invasive seeds could be imported), why is a country accepting that cargo ships full of cereals (corn, rice, wheat, etc.) from all over the world are importing their load freely in any harbour ?  Don’t mention the mice and the rats traveling with the cereals !

Why do the authorities accept that in and around every harbour of this world foreign (sometimes invasive) weeds are growing, fruiting, seeding freely ?  There is even a particular “harbour flora” !

Why do the governments accept that on every airport, in every railway station, in every bus station, foreign plants are growing, imported with the airplanes, trains and cars (they are called adventitious species)?

Would we really mind if one or another food crop would start developing freely in a dryland country where people lack food ?  What would people say if the deserts would be gradually covered with the date palms we imported, with tomatoes, onions, radishes, …?

Would we still need to invest billions in building “Great Green Walls” with non-edible, wood producing, commercially interesting trees ?


I could go on for a long time with examples, but I leave it to this last one :  every tourist entering a country is importing with her (his) body a lot of foreign organisms (bacteria sticking to our hands, seeds sticking to our shoes and luggage, etc.).  Nobody is penalizing those “importers of prohibited goods”, although we are continuously transmitting bacteria and viruses when we shake hands with the people we meet (and they are “offering” us their free bacteria too) !

And thus, sorry for the expression, that prohibition of importing seeds of food crops is “bullshit” (which is an organic fertilizer).

My advice : don’t worry about importing well-treated seeds of food crops. People should understand that we only want to help the poor to a bit of fresh food.

And if they don’t accept, will I be put in jail ?


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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